Canada’s Mayors Offering Federal Parties Solutions on Issues Impacting Standard of Living, Jobs and the Economy, Sustainability


Berry Vrbanovic, Mayor of Kitchener, ON

Canada’s cities are leading centres for creativity and innovation. They attract the talent and investment required for large-scale initiatives to succeed. As fundamental drivers of the economy, cities are best positioned to provide a path to job creation, stable, long-term, prosperity and sustainability for Canada.

With a federal election on the horizon, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ (FCM) Big Cities Mayors’ Caucus (BCMC) is working hard to ensure citizens understand the important role cities play. Our goal is to work with federal partners to secure local and national improvements in infrastructure, public transit and affordable housing, which better reflect the essential role that cities play in our shared standard of living and our future prosperity and sustainability.

Investing in public transit – two-way all-day GO rail service for Waterloo Region specifically – will enable economic growth, attract talent and will reduce daily commute times. Investing in affordable housing will mean safe, secure housing for low-income and vulnerable residents. Investing in infrastructure will mean manageable storm- and waste-water rates and a more sustainable Canada that is better able to compete on the international stage.

This election year, we can expect to hear a great deal in the coming months from the federal parties regarding their plans. We are encouraging Canadians to tell all the parties and the candidates about your priorities: expanded two-way all-day GO rail; the need for high quality jobs; and vibrant, livable communities. BCMC encourages all Canadians to join this discussion and ensure that these priorities – your priorities – are front and centre for all federal candidates. Some recent examples suggest that this campaign is having an impact.

Last month’s federal budget contained important investments that demonstrate the federal government is ready to partner with municipalities in building the economy and strengthening the quality of life for Canadians.

The budget reduced the small business tax rate from 11 to 9 per cent by 2019 and provided manufacturers with a 10-year accelerated capital cost allowance, to encourage investment in machinery and equipment. The budget also provides $14 million over two years to Futurpreneur Canada, to support and encourage young entrepreneurs. These measures will benefit the many small to medium enterprises that are a vital part of our local economy, both those in manufacturing and in the knowledge economy.

The new, permanent public transit fund announced in April’s federal budget commits $750 million for large urban municipalities starting in 2017 for two years, which will grow to $1 billion annually by the year 2019. I am pleased to see the federal government has chosen transit as a focal point for investment, as this is something cities have been requesting for a number of years.

Last month’s announcement is an important step in the right direction, however, when considered in the national context, one has to ask if it will truly be enough to see commute times reduced quickly enough in order to benefit the flow of goods and people in a timely manner. Further, at the time of this writing, it remains unclear what the federal government’s definition of “large cities” will be and whether Kitchener and Waterloo Region will meet their criteria.

Locally, we were hoping for support from the federal government that would expedite or partially fund our two-way all-day GO train service that we’ve been advocating for and that our region desperately needs. I believe this is the type of project that should bring the various orders of government together.

In Waterloo Region, we have seen the benefits of intergovernmental collaboration under a balanced model of shared responsibilities and resources. A three-way partnership between federal, provincial and municipal governments secured the $818 million required for the initial phase of our light rapid transit ION. Set for completion in 2017, the ION will help move the additional 80,000 daily commuters across Waterloo Region that are predicted between now and 2031, while also easing traffic volume on our roads and reducing related environmental pressures.

By comparison, the cost of two-way all-day GO rail service between Waterloo Region and Toronto is $600 million. This upgraded service would allow for an increase in the more than 10,000 professionals who currently commute daily from the GTA into Waterloo Region, for positions in tech, financial services, life sciences, academia and other growing sectors.

The 2015 budget also saw the new Building Canada Fund maintained at its current funding levels. However, a lack of clarity on the application process between the federal government and the provinces has meant that municipalities like Kitchener have not been able to access parts of this program. Municipalities are working to respond to the growing infrastructure deficit across the country, but federal and provincial support is critical.

Municipal infrastructure affects everything from transit infrastructure to wastewater management. Our current fiscal arrangement hampers cities’ ability to reduce traffic congestion and increase public transit usage. Local governments receive eight cents of every tax dollar in Canada, yet we are responsible for more than 60 per cent of the country’s infrastructure. This model is simply not sustainable and needs to be reworked.

Moving from infrastructure and public transit to affordable housing, we find a similar scenario. Cities assume the majority of costs – whether social, financial or environmental – resulting from the shortage of affordable housing, while they are offered limited visibility and even less say as to how federal funding is allocated.

Protecting federal investments in social housing is an important step in keeping housing affordable for all Canadians. The FCM’s budget submission made it clear that without the reinvestment of federal operating dollars, one-third of Canada’s social housing stock is at risk, pushing our already strained rental sector over its limits and putting vulnerable Canadians at risk of homelessness.

The April budget showed progress on affordable housing. The federal government committed to protecting the $1.7 billion annually for social housing for the next four years. There are many outstanding details on how the funding will be reinvested and how this will effectively reduce pressure on the growing affordable housing waitlists in cities and communities across the country. Social housing is just one pillar in our increasingly unaffordable housing system and there is an urgent need to see greater collaboration from the federal government to protect all social housing, increase rental housing and make housing more affordable for everyone.

On a regional level, the importance of this issue was reflected in the Greater Kitchener Waterloo Chamber of Commerce’s 2013 Resolution to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, which noted that “Canada’s housing crisis is too large and complex for any single order of government to address unilaterally.” That resolution stated that a coordinated approach across all orders of government was imperative to the development of a “Housing First” national strategy.

Achieving local affordable housing solutions isn’t merely a matter of municipalities asking Ottawa for greater financial resources. It’s about cities being best positioned to structure and implement the types of programs that address their particular circumstances. The outdated model of a one-size-fits-all prescription from Ottawa needs updating, as it does for infrastructure and public transit.

BCMC looks forward to working with our federal partners to bring about the solutions in each of these areas. If you would like to join the campaign, contact your Member of Parliament or the prospective candidates for each of the federal parties. You could start by telling them that cities are as important to you as they are to Canadian prosperity, global sustainability and our shared standard of living.

Equally importantly, in the coming weeks as interest in the federal election grows, talk about these issues affecting Canada’s cities and communities with friends and co-workers, better understand these issues, and most importantly use your new found knowledge to help you make an informed decision on federal election day.

Article originally published in the May|June 2015 edition of the Advocate